Reminding Us That EVs Are Becoming Less Of A Compromise

2013 Honda Fit EV - front three-quarter view, static

The 2013 Honda Fit EV, the Japanese automaker's highly anticipated answer to the Nissan Leaf, is quick, agile and actually quite fun to drive. Its cabin is roomy, outward visibility good and its styling is anything but odd. The platform is impressively safe, it has decent range and Honda says it is the most efficient vehicle the EPA has ever tested.

So, what's the problem? Let's call it a lack of volume.

Honda is only releasing 1,100 of these little blue hatchbacks over the next two model years in the States, and all of them will be delivered on contracted three-year leases. Making matters more frustrating for those who want to forget about internal combustion, only California and Oregon are in the launch plans with five other preselected East Coast markets opening shortly thereafter.

Statistically speaking, the Honda Fit EV will initially be scarcer than a Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 (the Italians are estimating a production run of approximately 4,000 worldwide). But thankfully, Honda brought a handful of pre-production Fit EVs to Southern California and offered us a drive. We ran acceleration tests, dodged cones on a slalom course and then did some real-world driving. Dwelling on its pending shortage, it was almost frustrating that we enjoyed ourselves so much.

2013 Honda Fit EV side view2013 Honda Fit EV front view2013 Honda Fit EV rear view

The most obvious change, for many, will be the unique Reflection Blue Pearl paint only offered on the Fit EV.

From a distance, it isn't easy to distinguish a traditional combustion-engine Fit (1.5-liter inline-four developing 117 horsepower) from its all-electric counterpart. Yet, as it draws near, the lack of a front grille, scripting on the rear doors and its extended rear spoiler will be the subtle indicators. Most obvious, for many, will be the unique Reflection Blue Pearl paint – only offered on the Fit EV.

Even if you are color blind and happen to miss the exterior tweaks, the passenger compartment is a dead giveaway. The steering wheel is nearly identical, but the primary analog instrumentation (tachometer, speedometer and fuel gauge) has given way to an analog power usage meter, digital speedometer and battery state-of-charge meter. The navigation system has been carried forward, but the HVAC system is now fully automatic (single zone) with a large digital display replacing the air distribution dial. In addition to the standard 12-volt power outlet, there are heated seat controls and an auxiliary audio input at the bottom of the center stack. The center console houses twin cupholders, a traditional gear lever (with an unconventional PRNDB arrangement) and a lever-operated parking brake. The cockpit is clean, not cluttered.

2013 Honda Fit EV interior2013 Honda Fit EV front seats2013 Honda Fit EV rear seats2013 Honda Fit EV rear cargo area

Engineers removed the H-shaped torsion beam in the rear and replaced it with an independant multi-link system – Honda's first for a Fit.

Less observed are the physical modifications made to accommodate the batteries stowed beneath the passenger floor. As such, the three rear seat occupants are moved ever so slightly rearward. The floor is raised a bit, too, so the seat cushion logically sits a bit higher as well. We shouldn't fail to mention the bio-fabric material which covers the seats; it is Honda's first use of the environmentally friendly upholstery. And much to our chagrin, the imminently useful Magic Seat feature that flips the whole second row up and out of the way to accommodate taller objects has been sacrificed to fit the box of lightning beneath the seats.

While the chassis and suspension is mostly shared with its combustion siblings (MacPherson struts up front), engineers have removed the H-shaped torsion beam in the back of the gasoline-powered Fit and replaced it with an independant multi-link system in the EV – Honda's first for a Fit. There are single-piston sliding-caliper disc brakes up front and drum brakes in the rear. The standard wheels are 15-inch alloys, wrapped in low-rolling-resistance all-season Michelin Energy tires (185/60R15 at all four corners). Honda's Electric Power Steering (EPS) is standard.

2013 Honda Fit EV front bumper2013 Honda Fit EV wheel detail2013 Honda Fit EV badge2013 Honda Fit EV badge

The Fit EV will go 132 city miles per charge and has an EPA-estimated combined driving range of 82 miles.

In terms of powertrain, the Fit EV features a maintenance-free 92-kW AC synchronous electric motor (developing 123 horsepower and 189 pound-feet of torque) driving the front wheels through a high-efficiency single-speed coaxial gearbox. Power is supplied by a Toshiba-produced air-cooled 20-kWh Li-Ion battery, located beneath the passenger compartment completely within the wheelbase.

With its own built-in charger, a 6.6 kW unit, the vehicle may be plugged into any household-type 120- or 240-volt AC power supply (charging times are less than 15 hours on a 120-volt supply, but under three hours on a 240-volt AC Level 2 source). As of today, Honda has picked Leviton to supply its preferred Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE) charging station. With full batteries, Honda says the Fit EV will go 132 city miles per charge, and it has an EPA-estimated combined driving range of 82 miles.

2013 Honda Fit EV electric motor2013 Honda Fit EV charging port2013 Honda Fit EV key fobHondaLink EV App

Honda has chosen a three-mode operator-selected drive system for the Fit EV: Normal, Eco and Sport.

To assist the owner with the whole charging process, Honda provides an interactive remote control with each vehicle. About the size of an iPod Nano, the digital remote is able to exchange information about charging status and climate control settings when the car is connected to a charging supply – check on your Fit EV from the comfort of your family room sofa, or from inside a restaurant, so long as you have a WiFi connection. An available smartphone application does the same, plus it allows scheduling of specific charging times (only draw power when electric rates are the lowest) and other features from just about anywhere.

Honda has chosen a three-mode operator-selected drive system for the Fit EV. When the transmission shifter is in Drive, the system defaults to "Normal" mode to deliver a proper balance between system power and regenerative braking (75 kW of electrical power is available during acceleration). Press the dash-mounted "Econ" button and power delivery is cut back (47 kW of electrical power available during acceleration), as is the use of the air conditioning compressor in this most efficient setting. Lastly, those who are seeking a more spirited driving experience will need to choose "Sport" mode (delivering upwards of 92 kW of electrical power during acceleration), which sacrifices range for quick acceleration and motor responsiveness. The driver won't ever question which setting the drive system is in, as the ambient meter and mode indicator within the instrument cluster illuminates in green for Econ mode, white for Normal mode and red when in Sport mode.

2013 Honda Fit EV drive mode controls2013 Honda Fit EV power/charge meter2013 Honda Fit EV gear selector

But there is more to the story; the transmission also has a "B" range ("Braking"), which optimizes regenerative braking to provide maximum charge back to the battery. It may be used with any of the three drive modes to effectively offer six unique driving modes for the Fit EV. Consider it a custom setup.

The Nissan Leaf (more than one hundred pounds heavier at 3,385 pounds) demonstrated more body roll and softer suspension tuning.

We spent the morning with a Fit EV prototype in Southern California's Rose Bowl parking lot and surrounding community. A slalom was first on the list, followed by some acceleration runs and then a few loops around a city/highway driving cycle.

With rare exceptions, the words "sporty" and "electric vehicles" are rarely combined in the same sentence (especially when the vehicle costs less than $40,000). Yet the Honda Fit EV, tipping the scales at 3,252 pounds (weight distribution 55 percent front/45 percent rear), happily dragged itself around the basic cone-laden course with confidence. There was plenty of tire squeal and noticeable understeer, but it wasn't sloppy or misbehaved like the Nissan Leaf – yes, Honda thoughtfully brought its closest competitor along for our subjective comparison. Back to back, we found that the Leaf (more than one hundred pounds heavier at 3,385 pounds) demonstrated more body roll and softer suspension tuning. The electric steering feel was rather numb in both, but the Fit felt more comfortable and controllable running the loop.

2013 Honda Fit EV driving2013 Honda Fit EV driving2013 Honda Fit EV driving2013 Honda Fit EV driving

Honda also set up a short straight with a radar gun at the end. We took turns drag racing to the flags to see which of the two was faster. The Leaf hit 36 mph in ECO mode and 42 mph in Drive. The Fit EV hit 43 mph in Econ mode, 44 in Normal mode and 47 mph in Sport. Both cars were traction limited at the start, but the Honda pulled much more strongly during the acceleration run once the tires hooked up. (Note: The Leaf and Fit were both running on near full charges for the acceleration test.)

Normal mode with the transmission in "B" was our favorite setting.

Lastly, we left the parking lot for a brief city/highway loop, as that is how most Fits will wear down their tires (our suspicion is that few owners will slalom or drag race with their EV, considering how detrimental it is to range). Acceleration off the line wasn't bad in any of the drive modes (as our previous acceleration numbers show), but the Econ mode was much more lethargic when reacting to accelerator input at speeds above 30 mph. Normal mode is more than adequate, acting like any other low-displacement four-cylinder engine around town (yet without the annoying need to downshift, thanks to the single-speed gearbox). The Sport mode is almost zippy, especially at slower urban speeds.

Around town, we found Normal mode with the transmission in "B" to be our favorite setting. The aggressive regenerative braking in this configuration helps to preserve battery life while dramatically slowing the vehicle when the accelerator is lifted. It took only minutes to become comfortable with its almost single-pedal operation, and we soon began to enjoy its natural sensation of engine braking.

Autoblog Short Cuts: 2013 Honda Fit EV

Merging into 70-mph traffic on a moving highway, the Fit EV held its own. While the output of an electric motor remains constant at speed, torque falls as RPM increases. This means that all EVs accelerate quickly off the line, but slow at higher speeds as torque diminishes and aerodynamic loads increase (even the Tesla Roadster runs out of steam above 100 mph). As we figured, the Fit EV lost most of its zippiness on the highway, but it was never worrisome, and we didn't have any problem jockeying from lane to lane. However, it was perhaps our clearest reminder that the Fit EV is anything but traditional.

The urge to drive more slowly seems to subconsciously occur each time we jump behind the wheel of an EV

Ignoring the urge to drive more slowly than normal to conserve battery power (it seems to subconsciously occur each time we jump behind the wheel of an EV), we headed back to the Rose Bowl parking lot with the transmission lever in "D" while utilizing Normal mode. In this configuration, with only minimal regenerative braking, the Fit EV responds much like a conventional car – eerily reminding us that electric propulsion is becoming less and less of a compromise to its fossil fuel counterparts.

We found much to like with the new Fit EV. We were impressed by its cabin space, driving dynamics and advanced electronics designed to ease the ownership experience. Its physical appearance is unique, but it doesn't scream out like many other "green" oddities on the road. Its human interface is friendly, and overall, it is exceptionally easy to drive.

2013 Honda Fit EV rear 3/4 view

Yet regardless of its expected rave reviews, Honda has no plans to sell its Fit EV to the public. Instead, the company has concocted an aggressive three-year Fit EV lease program of $389/month with zero out of pocket (the program is based on an MSRP of about $36,000 and buyers are still responsible for local applicable taxes). The deal not only includes roadside assistance, routine maintenance and navigation updates, but insurance too (customers will need to secure liability insurance on their own). There is no purchase option at the end of the lease.

Honda will only allocate about 1,100 units to the States over the next two model years.

But the attractive lease program isn't really a hurdle – low production volume is. To ensure a very positive experience for all Fit EV customers, Honda will only allocate about 1,100 units to the States over the next two model years (that works out to about 45 per month, a pitiful amount considering that Honda sold 4,227 Fits in February of this year alone). Therein lies our frustration.

Our initial impressions suggest that Honda has engineered the best EV in its segment. But with a volume limited to just eleven hundred copies, it's disheartening to realize that you may need your congressman to write a letter on your behalf to secure one.